BILLINGS — ESPN’s College GameDay will broadcast this week from the 121st football meeting between rivals Montana and Montana State on Saturday in Bozeman.
The weekly three-hour pregame show will air beginning at 7 a.m. Mountain time. Kickoff is scheduled for noon, and the game will be broadcast on the Montana Television Network.
GameDay host Rece Davis took some time to speak to MontanaSports.com on Thursday to discuss the rivalry and what it means, the competitiveness of FCS football and why ESPN ultimately chose to travel to Bozeman.
Davis also talked about the possibility of Lee Corso’s return to the GameDay set (Corso, a longstanding co-host, has missed the past few weeks due to an illness), ESPN’s plan to showcase the Grizzlies and Bobcats to a national audience — and fans not crossing too much of a line when it comes to their signs and placards on camera, which may or may not be wishful thinking.
Following is a look at the conversation:
MTN: What is it like for you to be in Montana for this game and to be able to bring what is such a huge rivalry here in Montana to a much wider viewership?
Davis: I think that's something that we pride ourselves on, that we don't just cover the upper echelon of the sport. We want to capture the entire landscape of it, and this is a rivalry that the Big Sky Conference and both schools have been pushing for a few years now to try to get us to come.
And when I say pushing, I don't mean that to sound as if we were begrudging in any way. It just has to sort of fall right, especially at this time of year because there are so many games that have an impact on the playoff picture at the FBS level. So it has to kind of fall right, and it did this year.
And one of the things that I love about doing this show is taking it to new places. It's become such an iconic part of the sport as a whole that I think a lot of the fans really take a lot of pride in being able to show off their passion for their programs and their rivalries and their teams on College GameDay, so it's a thrill to be here and we're excited about it.
MTN: The Big Sky Conference made a real effort, beginning last year, to try to bring GameDay in. How much did that play a role in raising awareness for you?
Davis: Things like that definitely get our attention, that's for sure, and it makes you want to check it out. And you start looking at the history of the rivalry and the longevity of it and the fact that both programs have been really good, and that’s a draw. I've hosted the show for eight years, and was in the studio for much longer than that — 20 some-odd years. But prior to my moving into this chair, they went to North Dakota State where it was a really big deal. Twice since I've been on the show we've been to James Madison. Unbelievable crowds. I know Appalachian State is now FBS but we went there. Great scene.
So I think what we've learned from that over the years is that the scene is important to the magnitude of the game. It's certainly important, you know, from a national perspective, but when you can showcase something as important to the people of Montana as this rivalry is — and I've been instructed to call it Cat-Griz on social media, right? — we want to be able to share that with people because people like a good story. They like drama. They like passion. They like excellence. And those are the things that this rivalry embodies.
MTN: What have you learned or picked up about the rivalry and the Bobcats and Grizzlies specifically in preparation for the show?
Davis: Well one of the things I checked out because I know Montana, you know, had a little bit of a slide there, I kind of wanted to get a good feel for whether this was an elimination-type game in terms of playoff consideration for them. And it's not.
And then I think from Montana State’s side, one of the things that my buddy (and ESPN reporter) Pete Thamel shared with me that I'm going to put on early in the show is, if you want to sort of epitomize the rugged nature and that toughness of this rivalry, they give the legacy No. 41 — because Montana's the 41st state — to R.J. Fitzgerald. So R.J., who's scored a few touchdowns this year and is a special teams standout from what I understand, is going to get a bit of a star turn on Saturday’s slate, assuming that we found the appropriate video for him. So I told them what I wanted, and hopefully it'll do him justice for the great example he sets for his teammates.
So those are some of the things that I figured out. Certainly, you know, everybody knows about (MSU coach Brent Vigen’s) reputation as a quarterback guy. Those are the things that we look forward to sharing with people on Saturday morning.
MTN: What do you expect to see from the city of Bozeman, the state of Montana and the fans while you’re here?
Davis: I expect a lot of hospitality and passion and excitement. A lot of times I'm a little bit OCD about getting the show in order and I spend an inordinate amount of time in my hotel room. And I decided that I can't do that this week. I’ve never been to Montana before, and I always wanted to come.
I walked down the street and a guy who’s name is escaping me right now has a son on the team. He asked if we were looking for a place to eat. I said yeah, and he said, ‘Well, go to Jam!. It's the best breakfast.’ And it was amazing. So I went in and had some breakfast and then a couple people came up and asked for pictures and everybody was really nice.
So I'm expecting a lot of hospitality and a lot of excitement, and hopefully some tremendous and edgy signs on Saturday morning. My thing on the signs is, walk right up to the line, but please don't cross it. So that's what we're looking for. And if you cross it a little, it's okay. Just don't go sprinting across the line.”
MTN: How much does the GameDay crew enjoy coming to this type of atmosphere in the FCS?
Davis: I think all of us love it because of the newness and the excitement that surrounds a lot of places where we haven't been before. Not that it's not great when we go to Tuscaloosa or Columbus, but when we go, people say, ‘Hey, you guys are back.’ It's a little bit different here. I think coming to a great small city, it's pretty cool. Downtown, just walking around earlier … I think whenever we can come to a place that's like this, we particularly like it.
Our guys work very hard, our crew, so they don't have a lot of time to go out and enjoy everything, but I'm hoping they at least get a little time to go out and enjoy themselves a little bit and experience what Bozeman has to offer.
MTN: What went into College GameDay’s decision last week to choose to come to Bozeman?
Davis: To be honest with you, we all pretty much were planning our trip last Friday, even before the Pac-12 results came out. We'd already been to Oregon — not that we can't go back — and we've been to Tennessee twice. And I would say we're the odds-on favorite to go to Ohio State for the second time next week. It's not as if you can't go someplace twice. But this felt like the right move.
There wasn't as much back and forth about it as there has been some weeks in terms of different perspectives. We'll go anywhere; we don't care which network is carrying the game. We want a great scene. So that's sort of how we approach it. But first and foremost on the pecking order is, ‘Where's the best story? Where's the cool story? Where’s something fresh?’ This checked every box, and it's something that we've had on the preseason list of potential sites for the last couple of years.
MTN: One question people have about the broadcast this week is whether Lee Corso will be there. Can you say one way or another?
Davis: As far as I know (he will), that's the best way to say it right now. I think he's recovered nicely. I think that's the plan. I don't want to get too far out over my skis and promise something, but to the best of my knowledge right now, everything's a go and he's feeling a lot better. And so as of when we're speaking here on Thursday, everything appears to be a go.”
MTN: There’s a lot of speculation about who the guest picker might be on Saturday. You probably can’t divulge that, but what goes into that process?
Davis: You’re right. I can’t divulge it. Some weeks it's easy and other weeks is difficult. I think people believe that you just ask somebody and they will just say yes. And we do get a lot of that. We also get, ‘Yes, I'd love to be the guest picker but I can't do it this week,' because the people that we’re asking are really busy. We have a wish list and a pecking order and we talk about that a lot. Sometimes you have to work down the list a little bit. It's just the way it is. Sometimes it goes down to the last minute and sometimes it falls in line pretty early.
MTN: There are some Montana Grizzly fans who might be a little disappointed that GameDay chose to go to Bozeman rather than Missoula. How much do you plan to showcase both teams and both universities?
Davis: The No. 1 thing we try to do when we approach laying out the show is finding balance and giving what we like to refer to as a sense of place and giving that game it's due and not treating it like a pregame show, because it's a pregame show for the entire sport. It's not just for the location where we are. The home team is going to get a little bit of a nod. It’s not a prerequisite anywhere we go to have a head coach on the show, but oftentimes we do and most of the time it's the home head coach who comes and joins us.
So there's that, but other than that, we're treating it as a really cool rivalry. We like to give people a sense of place and what the rivalry is about and why it's important to people here, but it's not going to be just fixated on those two. We're going to tell the stories, but we're not going to be concerned about, oh geez, we did a Griz segment here so we’ve got to do at Bobcat segment here. We don't really approach it that way. We approach it like we're doing our show for the entire sport and still capturing the sense of place and the energy of the crowd that is there.